Walking the Camino de Santiago Is a Bucket List Item for Many Retirees: Here Are 6 Questions To Ask Before You Commit

by  Kristin Henning and Tom Bartel, TravelPast50.com | May 21, 2024

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, has been around for centuries. Originally, the Camino was strictly a religious pilgrimage ending at the burial place of the Apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Traditionally, pilgrims came on foot from as far away as Canterbury, Rome, or Jerusalem. It has since become a rather trendy hike of as little as 100 kilometers (62 miles) that results in a certificate that says, “I did the Camino!”

While the Camino de Santiago has exploded in popularity over the past dozen years, the general level of preparedness and spirituality has declined. 

The most traditional route, the Camino Francés (the French Way) was named because that’s the route the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne took across the Pyrenees in the ninth century. The French Way begins in the village Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, at the foot of the Pyrenees and stretches nearly 800 kilometers (500 miles) to Santiago. 

Since the ninth century, a pilgrim who made the walk in good faith gained a plenary indulgence, a complete remission of sin. Pain and suffering along The Way only proved one’s intense interest in achieving the rewards. Even today, the plenary indulgence is still won by good Catholics who make a sincere pilgrimage.

Today, dozens of routes are well-marked and popular, including a more northerly and mountainous path through Spain, another increasingly traveled trail through Portugal, and several others from various points around France and Spain. 

Until the 1980s, only a few hundred pilgrims registered at the office in Santiago de Compostela each year. In 1993, however, the Camino Francés and the routes of Northern Spain were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and interest in the journey jumped. The 2010 movie, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen spurred even more to make the walk. Since then, the number of people doing the Camino has grown exponentially.

In 2023, more than 442,000 pilgrims completed at least the minimum 100 km distance to earn the Compostela. That means that, in the high season, the Santiago office may greet as many as 4,000 to 5,000 pilgrims a day. So, you can imagine that the last stretch of 100 km from Sarria, Spain, gets crowded. Indeed, a large percentage of pilgrims do only that last 100 km.

All this is to say, before you even decide to tackle the Camino, ask yourself these questions and be honest in your responses. Know that the Camino experience has changed now that it’s more popular, and know that with that popularity comes a wider variety of walkers with a wider variety of motivations. Don’t underestimate the need for flexibility and patience with a journey of this sort, where your body, as well as outside circumstances, may dictate your pace.

Why do you want to walk the Camino de Santiago?


The majority of pilgrims today are not walking to Santiago for religious reasons, but most will cite spiritual motivation as well as health and fitness. It’s not unusual to see groups of church youth or 10 friends together walking the last 100 km. You’ll still encounter solo walkers, old walkers, barefoot walkers, and maybe walkers with a dog or baby, but the many groups plus the sheer numbers of walkers make a quiet contemplative pilgrimage more difficult.

Are you in it for personal reasons or social? Do you really want to challenge yourself physically, or take it easy? Do you want to carry your pack with all that you’ll need, or do you want to send your luggage ahead by car every day? Are you choosing this pilgrimage because you want to get to know Spain — because you want to experience the countryside, small villages, and cities — or because you want to check off the Camino de Santiago from your bucket list?

How much time do you have and where will you start?


The amount of time you have will dictate your course and, perhaps, your starting point. If you have 35 to 40 days, you can accomplish the classic Camino Francés. With less time, you can really choose any section of the Camino of interest to you (unless you want to get the Compostela certification, which requires you to end in Santiago.)

In general, if you want to complete the entire Camino Francés in less than 40 days, you can plan on walking 20 to 30 km (12 to 18 miles) per day.  Find a good guidebook and work out your itinerary.

Consider doing what many Europeans do: take a week or 10 days to walk part of the Camino each year, until you’ve completed the journey. Your credentials, which you receive when you start, never expire.

Note: the Camino season, when the weather is decent and most lodging is open, is from early April through mid-October, although there are people who do it outside those periods. The weather will be less predictable, but the crowds will be much smaller.

Will you do the Camino solo, with partner(s), or with an organized tour group?

Nestor Martinez Nieva/iStock

Your choice of travel companions will affect the lead time you need for planning and booking. If you want to join a tour, start looking at least one season in advance. If you are booking your own hotels, you’ll probably want to make reservations about 90 days in advance. If you are just walking at your own pace, as we did, you’ll figure out your stops as you go, although with the crowds, that’s becoming much harder to do. Can you roll with those uncertainties? 

Will you stay at albergues arranged day by day, or plan hotel accommodations in advance?

Andres Victorero/iStock

It is still possible to walk without advance planning, to experience the entire route, and to land each day in a different albergue (refuge) without reservations. But, since mobile devices and apps now make it possible to reserve lodging ahead, beds available on a first come first served basis are dwindling. 

Be aware that the albergue sleeping arrangements are usually bunk beds in shared rooms (sometimes very large gymnasium-sized rooms) with shared bath and shower facilities. Yes, people snore, people get up in the middle of the night, some stay up late, and most get up early. Will you be happy, or at least tolerate, these conditions?

Will you carry your backpack or use shipping ahead services?


For some, the whole point is to be self-sufficient and flexible, to take it as it comes. For others, by necessity or preference, it’s important to arrange assistance. The first level of aid would be to find a company that will forward your baggage daily. Most albuergues provide envelopes from various services; just fill out the destination and drop the fee (normally about $5) in the envelope. This requires a reservation at the destination lodging, but you can still make these arrangements on a day-to-day basis. The next level would be to walk on your own but have both hotels and baggage transfers arranged in advance for the whole trip. These arrangements can be booked on your own or handled by select Camino tour support companies.

How will you prepare your pack and manage your training?

Courtesy of Kristin Henning and Tom Bartel, TravelPast50.com

How you decide to do your Camino will determine what and how much you’re carrying. If you’re carrying a pack for 800 km (500 miles), you’ll want to pare down weight wherever you can. If you’re sending your bag ahead every day, go ahead and pack the hair dryer. 

Don’t underestimate the physical strain of walking so far day after day. Train before you go with a loaded backpack. Break in your shoes. And don’t forget your hat, sunscreen, blister kit, and water.

Buen Camino!

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